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This summer's thrill ride has just arrived.

Inception (PG-13)

En español | Am I dreaming, or is Inception the most monumentally inventive, viscerally thrilling, intellectually engrossing fantasy thriller since the original Matrix? Writer/director Christopher Nolan, who reinvented the superhero genre with Batman Begins, and who told a murder mystery backwards in Memento, has with Inception done nothing less than revolutionize the way you'll think about your dream life.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, the ultimate corporate saboteur, skilled in the art of entering the dreams of giants of industry and stealing their most valuable secrets. Cobb's services are for sale to the highest bidder, and that has led to an escalating dreamscape battlefield, where he and his team of dream invaders do battle with their victims' own neurological counterinsurgents, dreamworld defenders who identify interlopers and try to wipe them out in the same way white blood cells attack foreign organisms.

Nolan's premise is fantastic, and his action scenes, in which the laws of nature are bent, snapped, and obliterated at will, are ridiculously entertaining. As Cobb's team bores into a victim's subconscious, rooting around for the information they seek, they incite dreams within dreams within dreams. Nolan doesn't cheat (well, not much), as the rules are clearly set out before the dream excursion: If you get killed, you wake up; if you impose your will too emphatically within a dream, the victim will realize he's dreaming; a few seconds of real time equals several minutes of dream time—unless you enter into those deeper layers of dreams-within-dreams, in which case a few minutes can seem like days, weeks, or even decades to you.

The rules impose their own limitations and opportunities, and the characters encounter both in a series of set pieces that are unlike anything you've ever seen. Entire cities rise and fall at the whim of a dream "architect" (Juno star Ellen Page). Rendered weightless due to a freefall he's experiencing at a higher dream level (don't ask), a dream invader ((500) Days of Summer's Joseph Gordon-Levitt) engages in an all-out midair brawl with a team of assassins in a hotel hallway, running up walls, crawling along ceilings, flying through doorways. 

Such scenes add to the dreamlike quality of the film itself. They echo things we've seen before, but perhaps can't quite put a finger on. The wall-walking fighters seem distant relatives to Fred Astaire, dancing on the walls and ceiling in Royal Wedding. The shoot 'em-up at a snowbound mountain outpost is a half-remembered first-person video game. The slow-motion warping of time is a backdoor homage to The Matrix (and admit it—before its two loopy sequels ruined everything, the original Matrix was just about the coolest thing you'd ever seen—until now).

But Nolan isn't interested in merely presenting spectacle. As he did in Memento, after establishing his premise and the rules, he begins orchestrating variations on the theme. Nolan has a maddeningly diabolical way of playing with the rules and having his characters seemingly defy them, only to unwittingly prove their authenticity. And his games extend to the audience: There's the matter of a little metal top that Cobb spins periodically. If it wobbles and falls, he knows he's awake. If it spins interminably, he must be dreaming. It's a nifty little motif that bridges the entire film, right up the final milliseconds, in an ending that I swear is every bit as visually, emotionally, and narratively compelling as the fate of Charles Foster Kane's Rosebud.

Of course, it's possible that I'm just dreaming...